“They’re Chatterboxes with their Feet”: Black Dances in Early Modern Spain

Scene from Gurumbe: Afro-Andalusian Memories.

In his Premática del Tiempo (1628; 1648), Francisco de Quevedo berates Black African slave culture flourishing on Spanish soil. What he denigrates in particular is the guineo, a West African dance known for its quick and brisk movements. In his own words, he scoffs: “Item. Given the ridiculous figure of the servants when they serve drinks to their masters, dancing the coliseo and the guineo, hunching their whole body over in a notably dangerous and disgusting manner, and that, being mute of mouth, they are chatterboxes with their feet from making so many unattractive reverences, we declare this to be discourteous and irreverent.”1 As if he were peering in on a masquerade ball or party, Quevedo’s satiric commentary in this passage, as well as in the rest of the Premática, possesses an ethnographic and folkloric flavor. Transporting us to some kind of ritual or folkloric performance (yet also legalistic and inquisitorial, hence the repetition of “Item” throughout the treatise), Quevedo conjures an imagery of a deformed and grotesque Black body qua co[u]liseo (derived from culo, or ass), guineo (the dance), and habla de negros (“Black Talk,” or speech impediment).

Quevedo’s remark “they are chatterboxes with their feet” also stems from a larger cultural legacy and history of West-Central African dances—the chacona, guineo, gurumbé, paracumbé, zarabanda, and zarambeque among many others—that traveled to and from the continent of Africa, the Spanish Caribbean, and the Iberian Peninsula. To acquire a fuller understanding of Black dances in early modern Spain, we must go back to early modern continental Africa and colonial Cuba in order to trace these dances’ transatlantic maritime journey to Spanish shores. Dance historian and flamenco scholar José Luis Navarro García, in Historia del baile flamenco, explains the indelible imprint of sub-Saharan African dances on Iberian soil. He is the first scholar, to my knowledge, who links sub-Saharan African dances, music, drumming styles, and ceremonial rituals coming from early colonial Cuba to early modern Spain well into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Navarro García explains that a variety of African dances, songs, and rhythms crossed the Atlantic from Havana, brought by mariners and other travelers, arriving to the ports of Cádiz and Seville. In Seville, for instance, census reports and ecclesiastic records document the large presence of Blacks and mulatos in attendance of and participating in the Corpus Christi procession that welcomed the Catholic Monarch’s arrival to the gate of the Macarena on July 24, 1477. Twenty years later, on June 27, 1497, during Queen Isabella’s appearance at Seville’s Corpus Christi festivities that summer, the city issued an order requesting that “all blacks in the city” participate in celebrating the Catholic Monarch’s arrival. 2 This civic gesture, in the historical archive, of including and signaling “all blacks” in Seville to partake in sevillano citizenry repeats itself in the early 1500s in Rodrigo de Reinosa’s literary archive of “Gelofe, Mandinga.” In the Municipal Archive of Jérez de la Frontera (Cádiz), complaints circulated in response to predominantly Black parties, or fiestas, where enslaved “fandangueros,” or partygoers, caused a lot of ruckus with their tambourines, barrel drums, and other instruments. 3

In theorizing the complexity of Black dances in early modern Spain, I would like to direct our attention to the “lower frequencies” that Ralph Ellison famously evoked in Invisible Man. If we are to read these dances as examples of Black communication, then, as Tavia Nyong’o affirms in his essay “Afro-philo-sonic Fictions: Black Sound Studies After the Millennium,” the radical tradition of Black communication on the lower frequencies is what enables me in this thinkpiece to challenge Western epistemic illiteracy in the variety of Black dances explored herein that represent most vividly instances in which Black communication and expression manifest in early modern Spain. I turn to an analysis of the lower frequencies in order to make better sense of Western (mis)perceptions of the hypersexuality of these dances. We must tread carefully when analyzing and describing these dances. We must also take with a grain of salt Western derogatory descriptions of them, most notably in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Spanish dictionaries, as well as contemporary literary criticism and historical commentary. Characterized by suggestive hip and pelvic movements, sultry gyration, and the poking and provoking of one’s dance partner and audience, the category of the lower frequencies allows us to pivot our focus on the hypersexuality of Black dances and their sounds from the carnal to, instead, the hypervisible and the hyperkinetic. The hypervisibility of Black dances lends itself to the fact of the regularity of their performance and fame. Yet, in haptic, scopic, and visual contexts dancing Black flesh mesmerized and titillated Spanish audiences (European and African-descended alike), and, at other times, disgusted moralists. But I also believe that dances like the zarabanda and the zarambeque give evidence to the realm of the hyperkinetic (so nicely nuanced in Covarrubias’s definition of the zarabanda in the Tesoro), which highlights the impactful dynamism of these Black dances in early modern Spanish daily life. As hyperkinetic entities, Black dances not only served the immediate role of performance but also anchored, on the one hand, and connected, on the other hand, African diasporic dance culture to Black sounds reverberating on both sides of the Ibero-Atlantic world.

At the turn of the eighteenth century and well into the nineteenth century, the repertoire of sub-Saharan African dances in Spain—especially the zarabanda and zarambeque—became flamencoized, thus becoming intimately linked to the term zorongo. In her forthcoming monograph, Sonidos Negros: On the Blackness of Flamenco, K. Meira Goldberg traces how the politics of Blackness figures prominently in the flamenco dancing body. In these current times, activists and scholars have dedicated their time to the study and preservation of Afro-Flamenco studies. In addition to Goldberg (flamenco dancer; dance historian), there is Miguel Ángel Rosales (anthropologist; film director of the documentary Gurumbé: Afro-Andalusian Memories), Yinka Esi Graves (flamenco dancer; scholar), Alberto del Campo Tejedor (anthropologist), among many others. Thanks to their recent endeavors, the history of bailes de negros in Spain will continue to receive global attention.

A final meditation. I would like to bring to my reader’s attention the Grammy® Award-winning early music interpreter Jordi Savall’s performance of “La Negrina: San Sabeya Gugurumbé” (1535; 1550), written by the Aragonese Renaissance composer Mateo Flecha “el Viejo.” I invite my readers to view the performance of “San Sabeya Gugurumbé” on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TZYcY_TmwVs. Under the directorship of Jordi Savall, the ensemble’s does not ridicule Africanized Castilian speech nor black dance forms. Rather, the early international music ensemble highlights and utilizes beautifully African polyrhythmic structures—hemiola shifts and sharp syncopation—percussive and stringed instruments from sub-Saharan Africa, and African-descended performers and singers to represent and reproduce African diasporic artistry, rhythms, and sounds in Flecha’s “La Negrina.” Contrary to common assumptions, Savall’s interpretation of habla de negros language is not a burlesque caricature or contrived mockery of Black Spanish. I emphasize this point because I do not believe that all Renaissance Iberian composers, musicians, and playwrights caricaturized or denigrated Africanized speech forms conclusively. In fact, Savall’s reproduction of African rhythms reflects the Aragonese composer’s song’s defining quality as a potpourri of folkloric dance.

On November 1, 2018, I attended Jordi Savall’s Philadelphia Premiere entitled “The Routes of Slavery,” a musical memoir that honored the journeys and lived experiences of enslaved Black Africans through the musical legacy they imparted. In doing so, Savall’s ethical decision to center visibly Black performers on stage–thereby emphasizing artistically sub-Saharan African rhythms and sounds–further illustrates my point that it behooves us to refrain from the easy seduction of uncritically imposing and swiftly reinforcing the notion that haptic, somatic, and sonic Blackness automatically instantiate modes of bereft and derogatory Blackness in dance forms. To that end, Jordi Savall reminds us that there still exist responsible efforts to convey and produce on stage and in a recording studio the complex beauty of the sonic Blackness of Africanized Castilian that embodies Black dance.

  1.  The original Castilian reads: “Item, vista la ridícula figura de los criados cuando dan a beber a sus señores, haciendo el coliseo, el guineo inclinando con notable peligro y asco todo el cuerpo demasiado, y que, siendo mudos de boca, son habladores de pies de puro hacer desairadas reverencias, declaramos sea eso tenido por descortesía e irreverencia.” Quevedo, Prosa festiva completa (Madrid: Cátedra), 216.
  2. Archivo Municipal de Sevilla, Cuaderno de Actas Capitulares, 27 June 1497. See Gestoso y Pérez, Curiosidades antiguas de Sevilla II, 101. The original Castilian states: “que deuian salir al dho. recibimiento todos los negros que ouiese en esta çibdad.”
  3. Folio 118 from the book chapter dated 1464 under the heading “Esclavos fandangueros.”
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Nicholas R. Jones

Nicholas R. Jones is Assistant Professor of Spanish and Africana Studies at Bucknell University. His research agenda explores the agency, subjectivity, and performance of black diasporic identities in early modern Iberia. He is co-editor of 'Early Modern Black Diaspora Studies: A Critical Anthology' (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018) with Cassander L. Smith and Miles P. Grier. His first solo-authored monograph, 'Staging Habla de negros: Radical Performances of the African Diaspora in Early Modern Spain,' will be published with Penn State University Press in 2019. He is currently at work on his second monograph that examines the role of material culture in the archival and literary history of black women in early modern Portugal and Spain. Follow him on Twitter @Bibliophilenick.